In Depth

Fact check: is vaping bad for you?

Health warning after British teenager suffers ‘catastrophic’ illness

Doctors have issued a warning about vaping after a teenager in Britain nearly died from “catastrophic” respiratory failure linked to e-cigarettes.

Ewan Fisher, 19, ended up on life support after being treated for the condition at Nottingham University Hospitals' NHS Trust. Dr Jayesh Mahendra Bhatt, a consultant in paediatric respiratory medicine at the hospital trust, said: “The evidence we gathered showed that it was that vaping that was to blame.”

The news comes days after health officials announced that a vaping illness, which has killed at least 40 people in the US, is probably caused by Vitamin E oil used in e-cigarettes.

What is vaping?

Vaping involves heating up a liquid that usually contains nicotine, propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerine, and flavourings.

This creates a vapour, which users then inhale. Single use e-cigarettes are available, but most users opt for refillable e-cigarettes, also known as vape pens.

More than three million people vape in the UK alone, according to a study published in September.

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Is it bad for you?

Because vaping is such a new phenomenon, scientists and doctors have yet to reach a consensus about any potential dangers.

A report on the respiratory effects of vaping, published in the British Medical Journal this week, says: “Decades of chronic smoking are needed for development of lung diseases such as lung cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, so the population effects of e-cigarette use may not be apparent until the middle of this century.”

However, a study conducted last year found that e-cigarette vapour can damage vital immune system cells and cause inflammation in lung tissue. The researchers said: “We caution against the widely held opinion that e-cigarettes are safe.”

All the same, an expert evidence review published by Public Health England (PHE) found that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful to health than tobacco, and can help smokers quit standard cigarettes.

According to PHE, the current best estimate is that vaping is around 95% less harmful than smoking tobacco, says gov.uk.

And while e-cigarette vapour usually contains nicotine - the addictive substance in cigarettes - nicotine itself is relatively harmless, adds the NHS.

There have been a number of cases of vape pens exploding, however. A 24-year-old Texan man died earlier this year when his vape pen’s battery exploded, firing shards of metal into his face and neck, severing an artery.

What happened to Ewan Fisher?

The British teenager nearly died after vaping caused a catastrophic reaction in his lungs, preventing him from breathing. He was connected to an artificial lung to keep him alive.

Fisher said he started vaping in 2017 at the age of 16 because he wanted to quit smoking to improve his boxing. Within months, he was finding it harder to breathe.

His mother took Fisher to A&E when he was coughing and choking in his sleep one night. “I thought I was going to die,” he told BBC News. A doctor who treated Ewan said: “He got as ill as anyone can get.”

It was six months before Fisher was properly up and on his feet again. He told the BBC that e-cigarettes had “basically ruined me” and urged other young people not to vape.

What is behind the US epidemic?

Patients in the US reported symptoms including coughing, fever, fatigue, shortness of breath, severe pneumonia and respiratory failure. 

Those affected used a number of different vaping devices and a variety of different brands of liquids and cartridges, the BBC reports. 

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has collected more than 120 samples to test for different chemicals, in a bid to establish whether a particular toxin or substance is behind the outbreak, or whether it’s the result of heavy usage.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it now has “one very strong culprit” with new findings that “provide direct evidence of vitamin E acetate at the primary site of injury within the lung.”

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